Overland Mail on the Santa Fe Trail

By Colonel Henry Inman in 1897

Mississippi River steamboat

Mississippi River steamboats

n 1817 the navigation of the Mississippi River was begun. On August 2nd the steamer General Pike arrived at St. Louis, Missouri. The first boat to ascend the Missouri River was the Independence; she passed Franklin, Missouri on May 28, 1819, where a dinner was given to her officers. In the next month, the steamers Western Engineer Expedition and R. M. Johnson came along, carrying Major Stephen Long’s scientific exploring party, bound for the Yellowstone River.

At that time, the quaint old cities of far-off Mexico were forbidden to foreign traders, excepting to the favored few who were successful in obtaining permits from the Spanish government. In 1821, however, the Mexican War of Independence crushed the power of the mother country and established the freedom of Mexico. The embargo upon foreign trade was at once removed, and the Santa Fe Trail, for untold ages only a simple trace across the continent, became the busy highway of a relatively great commerce.

Santa Fe traders soon realized the benefits of river navigation — for it enabled them to shorten the distance which their wagons had to travel in going across the plains — and they began to look out for a suitable place as a shipping and outfitting point higher up the river than Franklin, Missouri which had been the initial starting town.

Fort Osage, Sibley, Missouri

Fort Osage, Sibley, Missouri by Kathy Alexander.

By 1827 trading posts had been established at Blue Mills, Fort Osage, and Independence, Missouri. The first-mentioned place, which is situated about six miles below Independence, soon became the favorite landing, and the exchange from wagons to boats settled and defied all efforts to remove the headquarters of the trade from there for several years. Independence, however, being the county seat and the larger place, succeeded in its claims to be the more suitable locality, and as early as 1832, it was recognized as the American headquarters and the great outfitting point for the Santa Fe commerce, which it continued to be until 1846, when the traffic was temporarily suspended by the breaking out of the Mexican-American War.

Independence was not only the principal outfitting point for the Santa Fe Traders but also that of the great fur companies. That powerful association used to send out larger pack-trains than any other parties engaged in the traffic to the Rocky Mountains; they also employed wagons drawn by mules and loaded with goods for the Indians with whom their agents bartered, which also on their return trip, transported the skins and pelts of animals procured from the Indians. The articles intended for the Indian trade were always purchased in St. Louis, Missouri and usually shipped to Independence, consigned to the firm of Aull and Company, who outfitted the traders with mules and provisions, and in fact, anything else required by them.

Several individual traders would frequently form joint caravans, and travel in company for mutual protection from the Indians. After having reached a 50-mile limit from the State line, each trader had control of his own men; each took care of a certain number of the pack-animals, loaded and unloaded them in camp, and had general supervision of them.

Independence, Missouri Square, 1855

Independence, Missouri Square

Frequently, there would be 300 mules in a single caravan, carrying 300 pounds apiece. Thousands of wagons were also sent out from Independence annually, each drawn by twelve mules or six yokes of oxen, and loaded with general merchandise.

There were no packing houses in those days nearer than St. Louis, and the bacon and beef used in the Santa Fe trade were furnished by the farmers of the surrounding country, who killed their meat, cured it, and transported it to the town where they sold it. Their wheat was also ground at local mills, and they brought the flour to market, together with corn, dried fruit, beans, peas, and kindred provisions used on the long route across the plains.

Independence very soon became the best market west of St. Louis for cattle, mules, and wagons; and as the acknowledged headquarters, furnished employment to several thousand men, including the teamsters and packers on the Santa Fe Trail. The wages paid varied from $25 to $50 a month and rations. The price charged for hauling freight to Santa Fe was $10 for every 100 pounds, each wagon earning from $500-$600 every trip, which was made in 80-90 days; some fast caravans making quicker time.

The merchants and general traders of Independence in those days reaped a grand harvest. Everything to eat was in constant demand; mules and oxen were sold in great numbers every month at excellent prices and always for cash; while any good stockman could readily make from $10-$50 a day.

Hiram Young’s Wagon Shop in Independence, Missouri, painting by Cheryl Harness, 2011

One of the largest manufacturers and most enterprising young men in Independence at that time was Hiram Young, an African-American man. Besides making hundreds of wagons, he made all the ox-yokes used in the Santa Fe trade; fifty thousand annually during the 1850s and until the breaking out of the Civil War. The forward yokes were sold at an average of $1.25 and the wheel yokes for $2.25.

The freight transported by the wagons was always very securely loaded; each package had its contents plainly marked on the outside. The wagons were heavily covered and tightly closed. Every man belonging to the caravan was thoroughly armed, and ever on the alert to repulse an attack by the Indians.

Sometimes at the crossing of the Arkansas River, the quicksands were so bad that it was necessary to get the caravan over in a hurry; then 40-50 yoke of oxen were hitched to one wagon and it was quickly yanked through the treacherous ford. This was not always the case, however; it depended upon the stage of water and recent floods.

After the close of the Mexican-American War, the freight business across the plains increased dramatically. The possession of the country by the United States gave a fresh impetus to the New Mexico trade, and the traffic then began to be divided between Westport and Kansas City. Independence lost control of the overland commerce and Kansas City commenced its rapid growth. Then came the discovery of gold in California, and this gave an increased business westward; for thousands of men and their families crossed the plains and the Rocky Mountains, seeking their fortunes in the new El Dorado. The Old Trail was the highway of an enormous pilgrimage, and both Independence and Kansas City became the initial point of emigration.

Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company, about 1865

Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company, about 1865

In July 1850, an account of the first mail stage westward from Independence recorded:

“The Santa Fe line of mail stages left this city on its first monthly journey on the 1st of July.  The stages are got up in elegant style and are each arranged to convey eight passengers. The bodies are beautifully painted, and made water-tight, with a view of using them as boats in ferrying streams. The team consists of six mules to each coach. The mail is guarded by eight men, armed as follows: Each man has at his side, fastened in the stage, one of Colt’s revolving rifles; in a holster below, one of Colt’s long revolvers, and in his belt a small Colt’s revolver, besides a hunting-knife; so that these eight men are ready, in case of attack, to discharge one hundred and thirty-six shots without having to reload. This is equal to a small army, armed as in the ancient times, and from the looks of this escort, ready as they are, either for offensive or defensive warfare with the Indians, we have no fears for the safety of the mails.

“The accommodating contractors have established a sort of base of refitting at Council Grove, Kansas, a distance of 150 miles from this city, and have sent out a blacksmith, and a number of men to cut and cure hay, with a quantity of animals, grain, and provisions; and we understand they intend to make a sort of traveling station there and to commence a farm. They also, we believe, intend to make a similar settlement at Walnut Creek next season. Two of their stages will start from here the first of every month.”

The monthly stages started from each end of the route at the same time; later the service was increased to once a week; after a while to three times, until in the early 1860s daily stages were run from both ends of the route, and this was continued until the advent of the railroad. Each coach carried eleven passengers, nine closely stowed inside — three on a seat — and two on the outside on the boot with the driver. The fare to Santa Fe was $250, the allowance of baggage was limited to 40 pounds; all in excess of that cost 50¢ per pound. In this now seemingly large sum was included the board of the travelers, but, they were not catered to in any extravagant manner; hardtack, bacon, and coffee usually exhausted the menu, save that at times, there was an abundance of antelope and buffalo.

Stagecoach with guard sitting on top, protecting whatever wealth it might  have been carrying.

Stagecoach with a guard sitting on top, protecting whatever wealth it might have been carrying. (1913)

There was always something exciting in those journeys from the Missouri River to the mountains in the lumbering Concord coach. There was a constant fear of meeting Indians. Then there was the playfulness of the sometimes drunken driver, who loved to upset his tenderfoot travelers in some arroyo, long after the moon had sunk below the horizon.

It required about two weeks to make the trip from the Missouri River to Santa Fe, New Mexico unless high water or a fight with the Indians made it several days longer. The animals were changed every 20 miles at first, but later, every ten, when faster time was made. What sleep was taken could only be had while sitting bolt upright, because there was no laying over; the stage continued on night and day until Santa Fe was reached.

After a few years, the company built stations at intervals varying from ten miles to fifty or more; and there, the animals and drivers were changed, and meals furnished to travelers, which were always substantial, but never elegant in variety or cleanliness. Passengers were obliged to partake or go hungry for station meals that included a biscuit hard enough to serve as “round-shot,” and a vile decoction called, through courtesy, coffee — but God help the man who disputed it!

Some stations, however, were notable exceptions, particularly in the mountains of New Mexico, where, aside from the bread — usually only tortillas, made of the blue-flint corn of the country — and coffee, composed of the saints may know what, the meals were excellent. The most delicious brook trout, alternating with venison of the black-tailed deer, elk, bear, and all the other varieties of game abounding in the region. The passenger cost was $1.

Kozlowski Stage Stop, Pecos National Park, New Mexico

Kozlowski Stage Stop, Pecos National Park, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Thirteen years ago I revisited the once well-known Kozlowski’s Ranch, a picturesque cabin at the foot of the Glorieta Mountains, about half a mile from the ruins on the Rio Pecos. The old owner was absent, but, his wife was there; and, although I had not seen her for 15 years, she remembered me well, and at once began to deplore the changed condition of the country since the advent of the railroad, declaring it had ruined their family with many others. I could not disagree with her view of the matter, as I looked on the debris of a former relative greatness all around me. I recalled the fact that once Kozlowski’s Ranch was the favorite eating station on the Santa Fe Trail; where you were ever sure of a substantial meal — the main feature of which was the delicious brook trout, which were caught out of the stream which ran near the door while you were washing the dust out of your eyes and ears.

The trout have vacated the Pecos River; the ranch is a ruin, and stands in grim contrast with the old temple and church on the hill, and both are monuments of civilizations that will never come again.

Weeds and sunflowers mark the once broad trail to Santa Fe, and silence reigns in the beautiful valley, save when broken by the passage of “The Flyer” of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, as it struggles up the heavy grade of the Glorieta Mountains a mile or more distant.

Stagecoach Driver

Besides the driver, there was another employee — the conductor or messenger, as he was called. He had charge of the mail and express matter, collected the fares, and attended generally to the requirements of those committed to his care during the tedious journey; for he was not changed like the driver, but stayed with the coach from its starting to its destination. Sometimes, 14 individuals were accommodated in case of emergency; but, it was terribly crowded and uncomfortable riding, with no chance to stretch your limbs, save for a few moments at stations where you ate and changed animals.

In starting from Independence, powerful horses were attached to the coach — generally four in number; but, at the first station they were exchanged for mules, and these animals hauled it the remainder of the way.

Drivers were changed about eight times in making the trip to Santa Fe, and some of them were comical fellows, but full of nerve and endurance, for it required a man of nerve to handle eight frisky mules through the rugged passes of the mountains, when the snow was drifted in immense masses, or when descending the curved, icy declivities to the base of the range. A cool head was highly necessary, but frequently accidents occurred and sometimes were serious in their results.